From the Far East we make our way west -- but not by much. At their closest point, Japan and Russia are only about three miles apart. It will be no surprise that Christmas was not widely celebrated in the USSR under Communist rule. Now with greater freedom, more people are celebrating, but mostly NOT on December 25. While a few Catholics and Evangelicals may celebrate with the West, the majority of Russians who profess faith are Russian Orthodox. While Advent in the West begins on the first day of December and goes until Christmas Day, Orthodox Advent lasts 40 days, from November 28 to January 6, with Christmas Day on January 7. The date discrepancy with Western tradition is due to the use of the Julian calendar in the Orthodox church. My friend Andrei tells me he and his family usually decorate the Christmas tree around the end of December and leave it up until about a week after Christmas Day. For Orthodox believers, Christmas is the end of a month-long fast, so you can believe the feasting is that much more meaningful! Many wait to break their fast until Christmas Eve when the first star appears in the sky. Because most of the gift giving is done at New Year's, the Christmas celebration is mostly about the birth of Christ (what a concept). Church services are festive, and this is a special time for families to be together.
A common staple of the Christmas meal is sochiva, a wheat or rice porridge served with honey, dried fruit, poppy seeds, or nuts. The porridge is sometimes eaten from a common dish, symbolizing unity. The rest of the meal might consist of sauerkraut, borscht (beet soup), individual vegetable pies, and different kinds of vegetable salads, topped off with a dessert of fruit pie, gingerbread cookies, or fruit and nuts.
At the end of the Christmas feast, a beverage called zvzar is often served. Made from dried fruit and honey boiled in water, it is customary at the birth of a child, hence at Christmas for the Christ child.
The Christmas celebration in Russia is in some ways overshadowed by New Year's, when Ded Moroz (Santa Claus equivalent, lit. "Grandfather Frost") makes his appearance and gifts are exchanged. But for the faithful who celebrate the First Coming of the Savior, Christmas remains...well, Christmas.
Stay tuned for the last three days of the Christmas trip around the world!